The Master of Stair/Book 1/Chapter 14

CHAPTER XIV
THE CURSE OF THE DALRYMPLES

The Earl of Breadalbane smiled into the gloomy face of the Master of Stair.

"They hav'na' taken the oaths," he said. "I'm no' likely to be deceived. I have clear reports sent by Glenlyon—and certainly the Macdonalds couldna' take the oaths without his knowledge." He glanced round on the three men assembled in the massive drawing-room of the Dalrymples; the Viscount, cool and immovable as himself; Argyll, restless and ill at ease, the Master of Stair, dark and impatient.

"So we may proceed," he continued, "without any fear o' offending the law."

"My lord," said the Master of Stair, "we should have proceeded in any case. I have struck out the statement that the Macdonalds took the oath."

Argyll looked up.

"’Tis a dangerous method, Sir John," he said nervously. "It would look ugly if it ever came to light, ye ken, and there are a plenty of people would gladly turn it about to work our ruin."

Breadalbane answered:

"Hav'na' I said, cousin, that they ha' no' come in? Therefore we are in our just rights to be punishing avowed traitors."

"My Lord Argyll," smiled the Viscount, "you need not fear to embark on an enterprise that your cousin's caution deems safe."

Argyll, detecting the sneer, grew peevish.

"Aweel," he replied, "an' the enterprise is so safe and lawful show me the warrant for it, my lords." The Master of Stair turned impatiently in his chair.

"I will be your warrant, my lord," he said. "I am the first minister in Scotland. I take the responsibility."

"Ay?" answered Argyll. "But you are not so high, Sir John, that you cannot fall. And I'll no' mix in this without other safeguard."

"What?" demanded the Master haughtily.

"The King's command."

"The King's command is in his proclamation that all clans not taking the oaths are to be dealt with by the law," answered the Master.

"Aweel," said Argyll shrewdly, "then it should be no trouble to ye, Sir John, to obtain a warrant from His Majesty for the destruction o' the Macdonalds o' Glencoe."

"It is not needful," frowned Sir John.

But the Viscount leaned forward across the table.

"I think the King's consent is needful," he said; he glanced at Breadalbane, whose light eyes rested very disdainfully on his cousin. "What do you think, my lord?"

"As they hav'na' taken the oaths," answered Breadalbane, "we are within the law—yet I'm no' saying that precautions are onnecessary."

"Unnecessary or not I'll no' move without the King's name," said Argyll stubbornly.

"My lord, I will obtain it," flashed the Master of Stair. "Consider it done."

His father lifted his brows.

"Are you so certain of His Majesty?" he asked.

"I am certain of myself," answered Sir John superbly. "I shall, my lord, obtain the King's consent."

"At the audience I had when I made my report," said Breadalbane, "it looked to me that the King kenned little o' Scotland. He seemed glad that so many of the clans had come in—and opposed to violence in dealing wi' the Hielands; but wi' his cough and his strange English I kenned little enow o' what he said. I wasna' thinking ower muckle of him till when I took my leave, I discovered then his wits were where they should be."

"What did he say?" asked Argyll, half-anxiously.

Breadalbane wore an amused smile.

"He gave me a straight look, 'I'm blithe to hae seen you,' he said dryly, 'for the appearance o' your lordship is a sure sign o' the winning cause and as lang as I see you I ken I'm prosperous.'"

"Then he is no' so bad at character reading," commented Argyll.

The Viscount and Breadalbane laughed, but the Master of Stair peremptorily cut them short:

"My lords, let us understand each other plainly. Once the thing is resolved upon, let it be swift and sudden—better to leave it alone than bungle it."

"’Tis the only way," said Breadalbane. "No enemy will enter Glencoe save by craft."

"I did not say craft, my lord," cried the Master of Stair. "I said let it be done swiftly and suddenly—I will send a regiment from Fort William to sweep Glencoe clear of these bandits—another to stop the passes—you and my Lord Argyll shall hem them in—(yet I hope there will be no fugitives)—and SO the thing is done. The name of Macdonald will be cleared from Argyllshire and Invernesshire."

Breadalbane's pale eyes sparkled.

"Will you trust the commander of Fort William?" he asked.

"No—the second in command, Hamilton—a man anxious to make his way. He will serve our purpose. The soldiers must be Campbells—you will have a man, my lord, fitted to lead them."

"Glenlyon," said Breadalbane.

"You will know best. There must be no prisoners."

"But the women and children, Sir John?" asked Argyll. "Ye can transport them to the colonies?"

"No," said the Master of Stair, "no. It shall be fire and sword through Glencoe. I will not have one left alive. I am glad it is winter; now is the time to maul the wretches. Those who fly into the hills will this weather perish."

Then fell a little silence, broken by Argyll.

"The world will call this a massacre, Sir John."

"Maybe, my lord," answered the Master of Stair. "Do ye repent, cousin?" flashed Breadalbane.

"No," answered Argyll uneasily. "These Macdonalds have been a plague-spot in our ands for lang enow—but—"

"We have done with 'buts'!" cried Sir John. "I am resolved these thieves shall go and they go. The government is strong enough to bear the blame—and you shall have the King's warrant, my Lord Argyll."

He rose and touched the bell.

"I will show you the plan I have made of Glencoe," he continued, "whereby—securing the pass of Rannoch—we cut off every retreat."

He came back to his seat, frowning.

"But I am sorry Keppoch and Glengarry are safe," he added.

"Weel, they're no' so bad as the Macdonalds," returned Breadalbane.

"Pardon me, my lord; you mean they do not cumber your estates, or thieve your cattle—" answered the Master. "But they prey on Scotland as much as do the Macdonalds."

The secretary entered:

"Bring me those maps of the Highlands," said Sir John.

Argyll drummed his fingers on the table; his eyes traveled uneasily round the gorgeous flamboyant room, in an attempt to avoid the cold glance of his cousin opposite.

"The Jacobites will try to warn the Macdonalds," he said.

"They will not know that we have determined on severity," answered Sir John. "Doubtless they consider the Macdonalds came in with the rest."

"And if they do not," smiled the Viscount, "I think few Jacobites would be devoted enough to journey in this weather to the Highlands with a warning."

"No," answered his son. "I think the Jacobites are otherwise employed. They have tha tin hand which will ruin them."

"A plot?" questioned Breadalbane calmly

Sir John's blue eyes narrowed unpleasantly.

"Naturally, my lord—they do nothing else. But I have the threads of this in my hands."

Argyll began biting his forefinger nervously, when the Master's glance fell on him he obviously flushed, but his cousin's delicate face was unmoved.

"Another Bedloe affair, Sir John?" he asked.

"No, my lord. There are great names in it—the greatest. In a few days I hope to lay them before the King."

Melville had brought him the maps; he began to lay them out on the table; Argyll gave him a covert look.

"See, my lord," said Sir John, and he handed a paper to Breadalbane. "Is not this correct?" And as he spoke he leaned forward eagerly and traced with his pen the route Hamilton should take from Fort William to Glencoe.

Argyll pushed his chair back from the table, withdrawing himself from the discussion.

"We're no' needed," he said, with an uneasy smile at the Viscount, and a motion toward the Master and Breadalbane. Viscount Stair lifted his shoulders.

"’Tis certainly as wearisome as a Parliament sitting," he answered as he rose. "John, you must arrange the details of this charming little affair with my Lord Breadalbane, who seems to be in sympathy with you—we're even tired of it."

The Master flashed the angry glance his father's mockery never failed to evoke; but the Viscount laughed as he preceded Argyll from the room.

"My cousin and your son are of a mind," remarked Argyll.

"In some things," smiled the Viscount. They passed through the heavy carved doors into an adjoining room.

"I must be taking my leave," pursued Argyll weakly, and seemingly now, when alone with the Viscount, even more ill at ease. "I am due at Kensington—" he paused, then reached a sudden resolution—"My lord," he said, "think you your son will get the King's sanction for this—this—"

"Affair—" finished the Viscount dryly. "Well, I think my son can do a great deal with the King. They are somewhat alike, only, unfortunately, John lacks the steady purpose, that settled calm, that has brought His Majesty so far. When the keynote to a man's character is recklessness, his success may be brilliant, it will hardly be lasting. My son is absolutely reckless—you marked his allusion just now to this plot he hoped to discover?"

The Viscount twisted his wry neck with a keen look at Argyll, who stammered his reply as if it had been frightened out of him.

"I—heard, my lord—he mentioned—"

"’Twas most injudicious," interrupted the Viscount smoothly. "A little more and he would have mentioned names—he might even have mentioned yours, my lord."

"Mine!" cried Argyll, stepping back.

"Absurd—is it not?—but even supposing you were in the plot, I assure you that John, knowing it, is capable of disclosing to you that it was discovered."

Argyll gave a feeble laugh. "My lord, it is no' a concern of mine—what the Jacobites may plot."

"Naturally," answered Viscount Stair. "Merely—as my son said—there are great names imperiled."

Argyll saw clearly enough that the astute old lawyer divined that he was implicated, and the Viscount, seeing it as clearly his side, waited for Argyll's nervousness to betray him further.

But the Earl's caution had kept him from giving any written pledge to the Jacobites and the knowledge of it steadied him now; he fenced warily with the Viscount's wiliness and took his leave, more hastily than ceremoniously, leaving the Viscount in a pleasant humor. The little episode delighted him; he chuckled to himself at the thought of Argyll's face. He pictured that unfortunate gentleman's agonies as he hurried home; then his smile deepened as he saw still further. Argyll might warn the conspirators that the Master was on their track; they might take fright and escape the net spreading for them; so would the Master's labor go for nothing; the Viscount finally laughed aloud at the thought of the storm there would be when Sir John found himself outwitted; his was the temper that loves to provoke and then standing aside watch the violence aroused in others.

In these pleasant thoughts he was disturbed by the sound of the opening door and the slow entry of Lady Dalrymple.

At sight of him she hesitated.

"Where is Sir John?" she asked.

The Viscount pointed to the folding door. "In there, with my Lord Breadalbane."

She shrank away from the door as if she saw the man behind it.

"What do they talk of?" she asked heavily.

"Why, madam," he answered dryly, "what business is that of yours?"

She shook her head drearily and crossed to the window; in the gray light of the winter afternoon her face and figure showed one dull whiteness; her pale hair, her white dress and her pallor made her appear ghostlike in the somber room. A few flakes of snow were falling across the leaden sky; Lady Dalrymple stared out at the bleak square and the bare trees.

"Madam, have you no occupation?" asked the Viscount suavely.

"No," she answered, without looking round.

"There are pleasanter ways of doing nothing," he observed, "than contemplating a dreariness."

"My lord—I see nothing else—wherever I look." She turned her head and her dim blue eyes rested on him.

"An unfortunate disposition," he remarked.

She came down the room restlessly, her head hanging a little.

"Did you want to see my son?" questioned the Viscount, eying her.

"No," she answered dully.

"You merely questioned, madam, that you might avoid him?"

Lady Dalrymple lifted her head.

"Perhaps," she said, with trembling lips.

The Viscount smiled.

"Will you, madam, do me a like service?"

"What?" she asked.

"Avoid me, madam; the house is large enough."

A faint flush came into her face.

"I strive, my lord, not to trouble you."

"Madam, you are hardly successful."

"Forgive me," she said, very white again. "It is not of my doing that I am your son's wife."

The Viscount shrugged his shoulders. "I am not responsible for my son's domestic affairs—"

She turned and faced him.

"Your son is your son," she said bitterly, "and what you made him. Between you, you have goaded me into something near craziness—but you shall not dare to judge me—you who know what your son is—without pity, or charity, or any tenderness—violent beyond reason—mad!"

The Viscount looked at her straightly and smiled, and at his smile she gave him a wild look and turned hastily, as if frightened, from the room.

As the door closed behind her she shuddered, then began slowly ascending the great stairs.

So lonely, so utterly lonely! The vast house was certainly haunted; she continually glanced over her shoulder at the ghosts catching her skirts.

So lonely, so intolerably lonely! the dark pictures on the walls looked ominous and threatening; heavy shadows lurked in every corner; she began to hurry like a guilty thing, starting before every open door with a frightened glance into the empty room beyond. She came to the very top of the house; the low attics under the roof.

One of these she entered, catching her breath at her own footsteps. It was dusty, empty, this garret, yet it would seem as if some one had recently been there, for a candle in a silver stick stood on the window-ledge and a broken chair was drawn up under it; in one corner was a pile of boxes and some old pictures with their faces to the wall.

Lady Dalrymple shut the door and glided softly across the floor; her face wore a look of expectancy. She lit the candle; it cast a dim light, showing the cobwebs hanging from the ceiling and the broken plaster of the walls and throwing great shadows from the boxes in the corner.

It was bitterly cold here, but she did not seem to heed it; carefully she placed the candle so that it did not gutter in the draught, then, sinking on her knees beside them, she opened the topmost box.

Out of it with infinite care she took a large jointed doll, the waxen face beautifully modeled. It was the size of a child and was elegantly dressed in velvet and lace; Lady Dalrymple set it on the chair and smoothed out the collar with loving fingers.

In this uncertain light the doll had a ghastly semblance of humanity; like a dumb and motionless child, its glass eyes stared at the woman kneeling at its side; the draught from the window blew its black curls to and fro in lifelike manner.

Lady Dalrymple smiled to herself and stroked the velvet coat half-timidly, then returning to the box she brought from it a work-basket and a little shirt and with these she seated herself beside the chair and began to mend the shirt where the wrist ruffle was torn.

Her delicate hand flew swiftly to and fro; for all the ill-light and the cold, her face was absorbed, almost contented. When the light task was completed, she held the garment up before the candle with a little smile; she was shuddering in the bitter draught that crept round the attic; but she did not know it; her lips moved as if she spoke to herself; she drew the doll down and removing its coat, carefully fitted on the shirt; it was too large and hung stiffly on the unbending figure; but Lady Dalrymple held the doll out at arm's length with a wistful face; then caught it to her poor empty heart and rocked it to and fro with passionate hands clasping the inanimate rag.

"Harry," her cold lips murmured, "so you used to sit—it feels like you—so—then your arms would go round my peck—slowly."

She quivered into a smile at the recollection.

"Then you would lift your face up—all soft and warm ah, my dear—my dear—"

Her great moist eyes turned to the thing in her arms; she saw the staring glassy eyes, the hard wax face and rose, setting it it aside.

"It is a lie," she said with the quiet of agony. "You are dead."

She laid her face against the wall and woe shook her whole body.

"God!—are these things just?" she said with clenched hands. "Is it right these things should be?—that I should live to think upon his grave?"

Her voice echoed through the bare rafters; a sudden gust of wind blew the window open and the candle out; she gave a cry of terror and rushed from the room, shutting the door behind her. At a swift regardless pace she came down the stairs till she reached a landing where a dim lamp hung.

She paused there a moment as if she had forgotten where she would go, and while she hesitated a door was opened and the Master of Stair stepped out. His wife shrank back against the wall, but he stopped and their eyes met.

He noticed her face, her fallen hair, the dust upon her dress.

"Who are you? Where have you been?" he asked, starting back.

Her side she drew herself still further away; her lips formed a half-smile; very foolish, very tragic.

He swept past her down the stairs, fiercely as though the Furies were after him; the clatter of his sword on the marble echoed through the empty house.

His wife had reminded him of his sister Janet, with her blank blue eyes, her soft white face and her curious crouching attitude, like an animal expecting the whip.

He gave a wild laugh; for that one startled moment he had thought it was his sister, and she dead twenty years! His thoughts were wandering; he laughed again recklessly and flinging his head back, looked up.

Lady Dalrymple had come to the head of the stairs and was peering down, her hands clasped behind her—surely it was his sister—and the house was haunted as he had known—known—

So strong was the feeling that the man felt the word form on his lips, "Janet!"

The woman suddenly broke into laughter, crazily, an echo of his own and turned away and disappeared, and the Master of Stair flung on his way with the sound of it in his ears.